Primal Therapy inventor Dr. Arthur Janov leaves an enduring local legacy

By Andrew Dubbins

“The Primal Scream” sold
more than a million copies and made a celebrity of Janov.

In his final months, Dr. Arthur Janov — the father of Primal Therapy — was working feverishly on a new book. With a throat disease limiting his ability to speak, he poured himself into his writing. He’d write wherever and whenever he could, mostly at his home in Malibu, up to 10 hours a day on his computer.

When Janov died at age 93 earlier this month, from respiratory arrest following a stroke, he had only a few pages to go. Titled “The Psychology of Everyday Life,” the book summarizes Janov’s five decades teaching and researching primal therapy, which he created in the late 1960s.

After his 1970 bestseller “The Primal Scream,” Janov wrote 17 books, none of which matched it in popularity. But Janov’s wife told me he didn’t write for the acclaim. “He knew his work was important,” she said.

Janov’s life’s work began with the wail of a patient. During a therapy session in the mid-’60s, Janov asked a patient to cry out for his parents, and the young man released what Janov later described as a “piercing deathlike scream.” Janov concluded that the scream was the product of unresolved trauma from early childhood. He began encouraging other patients to cry out for their parents and staging re-enactments of early childhood experiences to help patients get in touch with their pain and let go of it.

The result was Primal Therapy, which Janov introduced to the world in “The Primal Scream.” The book became a cultural phenomenon and drew a myriad of celebrities to his practice. His most famous patients were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who recorded “Plastic Ono Band” — commonly called the Primal Album — during their five months in therapy with Janov. “The Primal Scream” sold more than a million copies and made a celebrity of Janov. In 1971, an article in the Los Angeles Times went so far as to call him “one of history’s five greatest men (along with Socrates, Galileo, Freud and Darwin).”

Primal Therapy fell out of vogue as the years passed, with Janov’s research failing to produce the results necessary to convince mainstream psychotherapists of its effectiveness. “There is no evidence that screaming and catharsis bring long-term emotional relief,” Dr. John Norcross says in The New York Times’ obituary for Janov.

But Janov remained convinced that primal therapy was a powerful tool for helping people, which he cited as his motivation for pursuing a career in therapy. “My mother had a history of psychoanalysis,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1983. He chose the field, he said, “to try to cure my mother, so she’d take care of me and get sane.”

After serving in the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee during World War II, Janov returned to his hometown of Los Angeles where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in psychiatric social work from UCLA. In 1968, he co-founded the Primal Institute in West L.A. with his first wife, Vivian Janov. To help patients access early memories, the institute had therapy chambers with props such as teddy bears, cribs, dolls and baby rattles. Treatment lasted about a year, and cost $6,600 in 1978 (about $24,000 today).

Janov’s second wife, France Daunic, told me she suffered severe depression — even attempting suicide — before she borrowed “The Primal Scream” from a roommate. “It saved my life,” she said. She moved to L.A., enrolled at the Primal Institute, and eventually became a teacher of Primal Therapy, studying under Janov and his first wife. “Then something happened,” France recalled. “It started with coffee, then lunch — then oy-oy-oy — we fell in love.”

She and Janov were fired from the institute and, after his divorce, moved to Paris, where they opened the European Primal Institute. In 1989 they returned to L.A. and launched the Janov Primal Center in Venice, in competition with Vivian Janov’s nearby Primal Institute, which remains under her direction. The Janov Primal Center has since relocated to Santa Monica and sees fewer patients, France told me, but still draws individuals from all over the world.

Primal Therapy may not have changed the world of therapy, as Janov predicted, but it left a lasting imprint on popular culture. Entries on “primaling” and “having a primal” can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Students at university campuses such as Columbia and Northwestern gather each spring for a massive “primal scream.” I recently attended a breathwork class (which seeks to release pent-up emotions through controlled breathing) — and the class concluded with a group primal scream.

Breathwork, which is growing in popularity, strikes me as the next generation of primal therapy. France hadn’t heard of it, unaware of this facet of her husband’s legacy.

As for Janov’s final book, France gave me a brief overview: “It’s about the importance of love … loving your children, and letting them be who they are, instead of forcing them to be someone else.”

She hasn’t decided where to publish the book — perhaps through Amazon or the Primal Center’s website — but she is certain of one thing: “I want it to be free.”